Faith leaders in the skeptical south are working to persuade their congregations that climate action is a Christian duty
Robin Blakeman, an eighth-generation West Virginian, has been a practicing minister since 2004. This May, the city where she lives flooded for the second time in nine months. Several inches of rain left roads in disarray, with cars washed out and first responders rushing to evacuate families. The rising flood also damaged one of the city's churches.
Before that point, local congregations in Huntington, West Virginia, had talked about how the climate crisis was causing flooding. One church had hosted film screenings about global heating; Blakeman herself gave a sermon on Earth Day at another in 2020. But since the flood, they're talking about it a lot more, said Blakeman.
According to Blakeman, who is Presbyterian, there's "often some disjunction" in the faith community between natural disasters and the underlying climatic issues that cause them. "But I think it's becoming more and more of a conversation," she says, "as floods happen more frequently."
Blakeman is part of a growing number of faith leaders in West Virginia - who in turn are part of a global movement - using their position to organize around climate change. In June, Blakeman took part in an interfaith climate conference, which convened about 40 ministers, pastors, congregants, activists and researchers in a grand Presbyterian church in Charleston, West Virginia's capital. Their goal: to discuss how to use religion to further mobilize the state's residents around climate change.
In West Virginia, individual churches are an important force for social organizing and capital: 78% of residents in the state identify as Christian, and West Virginians say that their compatriots listen to three kinds of people: doctors, teachers and preachers.
If faith leaders want to use the good will they've earned in their communities for climate action, their work is cut out for them. A Yale University poll from 2021 found that only 57% of West Virginians believe that climate change is happening, compared with 72% nationwide.
"The traditional language of climate crisis and climate change bounces off most West Virginians," said Doug Imbrogno, a West Virginia journalist who attended the conference. "[We need to make it] something that's real, something that's part of the lived experience. You know that flood that your grandma experienced, and it completely upended her life? That's going to happen a lot more."
At the conference, pastors, ministers and preachers discussed both on-the-ground strategies and philosophical ideas about using faith to mobilize West Virginians. They talked about the importance of planting trees to create carbon sinks and the filth generated by a cryptocurrency plant in a nearby town. They distributed flyers about how to make a church energy efficient and how to initiate conversations with congregations around global heating. They spoke about the strategy of reframing the climate crisis as a values-based issue rather than a political one, since many churchgoers might not want to talk about politics during worship. But they also acknowledged that building political pressure may be the point of climate organizing - and that the Catholic senator Joe Manchin and the Presbyterian senator Shelley Capito should listen to their constituents, who are often also their co-religionists.
Often, said Blakeman, the churches that are organizing around climate start small: installing energy-efficient lightbulbs and solar panels and landscaping with native plants. Once a congregation sees the benefit of investing in energy efficiency, it opens the door to thinking about the climate crisis more broadly. Blakeman - who is also the head of Energy Efficient West Virginia - refers to this as getting people "climbing up that ladder".
For many of the religious leaders at the conference, Christianity and climate justice go hand-in-hand. A Catholic organizer, Donna Becher, called combating climate change a "moral imperative".
For Blakeman, her feeling of responsibility for the natural world started early, thanks to her upbringing in a rural corner of West Virginia. As a child, she attended Presbyterian summer camp, where she fell in love with the state's rugged natural beauty.
"It is a feeling of calling that has brought me to do this. I think I was raised in a way to do this," said Blakeman, who is a minister at large without her own congregation and has used her sermons to talk about global heating for about 15 years.
For these leaders, the connection between Christianity and fighting climate change is obvious. But there was an element of preaching to the choir at the 5 June conference - many of the leaders belonged to congregations that were already acting on climate change.
Among other religious leaders and congregations, there is a "resistance to even talking about [climate]," said Jon Clark, the regional Appalachia coordinator for the Citizens' Climate Lobby, who drove down from Pennsylvania for the conference.
Some of that is denial, while some is a reluctance to alienate congregants who don't believe that changes in weather and climate are caused by human activity. Many prominent people in the state's presbytery are connected with oil, gas and coal, and many West Virginians have long, complicated relationships with these industries. For example, the former president of the West Virginia Coal Association was an elder of the First Charleston Presbyterian church where the conference was held.
Then, there's the split within the movement. Many leaders of Black West Virginia churches are passionate about the climate emergency and environmental justice, too - but some struggle with galvanizing their congregations around these topics, which many see as a movement for suburban white activists.
Crystal Good, a local poet and activist who attended the conference, said there was a lot of work to be done in building a bridge between white faith leaders and her Black community, which in the US often bears the brunt of increasingly extreme weather and environmental racism.
Good wants to see more Black leaders at events like this conference in the future. "They say, everybody's welcome, the door's open. But I'm not going to just walk into your house just because the door's open."
When you think about the credible messages or voices, that's your clergy
Marcia Dinkins is a Black faith leader in the climate movement, who planned to attend the conference but couldn't because of a health problem. Dinkins is a nondenominational Christian and a bishop, with years of experience organizing around domestic violence, health, climate justice and more. And she knows first-hand the importance of environmental justice. Floods in 2018 and 2019 drenched her basement in Toledo, Ohio. White mushrooms grew in the humidity, and one day, she fell into anaphylactic shock because of the poor air conditions. Now, she has to travel with two EpiPens.
Dinkins agrees with Good that Black Christians often don't see themselves reflected in the fight. And she said that many Black clergy who belong to huge churches don't always feel equipped to start conversations. She aims to change that. She argues that faith leaders in the south are uniquely positioned to counter Republican climate denialist narratives.
"Who can get into places that most people can't?" said Dinkins. "The church. When you think about the credible messages or voices, that's your clergy." Like other faith leaders, Dinkins sees this as part of the job.
"If you're going to [engage on the subject of the climate crisis] from the evangelical point of view, let's talk about it. What's the true point of view of faith? To stand up for the widow, the poor," she said. "To enact justice."